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32 Science-Backed Ways To Avoid Holiday Weight Gain

December 24, 2013
Nicole McDermott


Avoiding holiday weight gain may sound as feasible as Santa fitting down billions of chimneys on Christmas Eve, but we promise there are logical strategies (that work all year round) to stay on track. Many of us experience weight gain during the festive winter months, but packing on a few pounds in December is far from inevitable. Don’t get us wrong — the holiday season is all about celebrating, having fun, and indulging. So pass the eggnog and yule log (in moderation) and let’s tackle how to navigate holiday party food spreads, hectic schedules, and ruined gym routines — without turning into Mr. Scrooge.

Tips for Eating and Drinking  

1. Eat Before Celebrating
Skipping breakfast and/or lunch in order to “save your appetite” for Christmas ham and other treats probably isn’t the best weight-maintenance tactic. While the jury’s out on how important breakfast really is, not breaking the fast ‘til the afternoon may lead to bingeing later on (read: four slices of pumpkin pie. Make sure to stick to a reasonably sized breakfast with plenty of protein, which will help tone down the urge to stuff your face at a party later on in the day.

2. Bring Your Own
Rather than try to figure out what’s in every food item at a friend’s party (or avoid it altogether), bring one healthier side dish or dessert that you can count on. Taste the dishes you’d like to, but know you have your healthy alternative to fall back on (an especially safe bet for those with food allergies or intolerances).

3. Chew Slowly
Eating slowly may not be easy when appetizer options are endless (and you’ve just got to try one of everything before they’re gone!) but it pays off to pace chewing. The quicker we eat, the less time the body has to register fullness. So slow down, and take a second to savor each bite of baked brie and each scoop of spiced nuts.

4. Serve Meals Restaurant-Style
When it’s time to sit down for the main event, leave food on the kitchen counter (away from reach) rather than display a basket full of piping hot rolls, multiple casseroles, and an entire turkey right on the table. When you’ve cleaned your plate, take a breather, and then decide if you really want those seconds. Changing up the environment — in this case, by leaving food near the stove — can help reduce overall food intake.

5. Use Smaller Plates
History shows plate sizes have expanded significantly over the years. Whether you’re dining at a friend's or family member’s house or your own, choose the smaller salad plate (8-10 inches) instead of a tray-like plate (12 inches or more). Using smaller plates can actually make us feel fuller with less food. The brain associates a big white space on the plate with less food (and smaller plates generally require smaller portions).

6. Pick Protein
Protein can help maintain a healthy weight because high-protein diets are associated with greater satiety (and as an added benefit, it’s important for healthy muscle growth. Make sure to serve up some turkey or ham, or prepare animal-free alternatives like quinoa, lentils, or beans.

7. Fill Up on Fiber
Snacking on vegetables and other high-fiber items like legumes can help keep us fuller, longer (though there’s always space for dessert). Give the vegetable platter a second chance with a healthy and tasty dip.

8. Make Room for (Healthy) Fats
Cutting butter and oil can slash calories (and it’s easy to swap in foods like applesauce, avocado, banana, or flax into holiday baked goods), but not all fats are bad fats. Not only do we need fat in our diets to provide energy and absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, it also helps us feel full. Get healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from avocadoes (hello, guacamole), nuts, and olive oil (in baked goods, on veggies, or in homemade dressings. Bonus tip: Combining fat with fiber — like dipping veggies in guac — has been shown to increase fat’s power to make us feel full.

9. Sneak in the Veggies
Munching on vegetables has long been recognized as a way to protect against obesity. Mix pureed veggies, like pumpkin, into baked goods or casseroles, or sneak them into starchy pasta or potato dishes. Adding veggies increases fiber, which helps make us fuller.

10. Ditch Added Sugar
Holiday cookies, cakes, and pies are nothing short of tempting, but all that added sugar may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and obesity. Stick to sugar that comes in its natural form (in fruits, veggies, and whole grains) and try small tastes of the desserts you’re truly craving rather than loading up a full plate of bland cookies.

11. Take it Easy On Simple Carbs
That’s the white stuff — white bread, pastries, and refined sugars (like those in soda). These foods provide energy, but they lack the same nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and fiber) as complex carbohydrates. The body breaks down simple carbs quickly, which creates a spike in blood sugar (insulin) that leaves us feeling hungrier, faster. Choose whole grains instead (i.e. whole-grain rolls, brown rice or quinoa, and desserts made with whole-wheat flour), which may reduce potentially dangerous excess abdominal fat buildup.

12. Just Say No
Though Grandma or Uncle Bob may encourage overeating by shoving seconds onto an already cleaned plate, it’s okay to respectfully decline. “I’m full” or “I’m taking a break” should be enough for friends and family members to back off (and give you some time to decide if you’d really like more). 

13. Wait Before Grabbing Seconds
The quicker we shovel down a meal, the less time we give our bodies to register fullness. Since it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to get the message that dinner’s been served, it’s best to go for a walk or sit down and chat with friends before dishing up seconds or eyeing the dessert table

14. Invest in Some Toss-Away Tupperware
Before guests head out and leave you with half-full platters of food, have some Tupperware at the ready (or better yet, ask people to bring their own for a more eco-friendly holiday party). Encourage friends and family members to load up their containers before leaving. That way, your fridge won’t be clogged with huge (and tempting) dishes of special occasion food for the next week.

15. Freeze It
If you end up with loads of leftovers on your kitchen counters, pack up the extras and stash ‘em in the freezer for a later date. When the food is out of sight, studies show you’ll be less likely to reach for a second helping (like when you’re in your pjs and everyone’s asleep.)

16. Turn Off the Tube
Though turning off the TV during the ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas” feels like a sin, eating while watching television is linked to poor food choices and overeating. Getting sucked into A Christmas Story or Elf may bring on mindless eating, since it can be easy to lose track of just how many candied pecans or gingersnaps we’ve thrown down the hatch. And it’s not just the mindlessness of watching television that’ll get us. Commercials for unhealthy foods and drinks may increase our desire for low-nutrient junk, fast food, and sugary beverages.

17. Chew Gum
Popping a piece of sugar-free gum won’t necessarily curb your appetite. But chewing a 5-calorie stick can keep the mouth busy when cooking up a meal or socializing amongst a sea of hor d’ouevres at a party. While the long-term effects of gum chewing on weight loss are minimal, studies show it can lower cravings for sweet and salty snacks, and decrease hunger between meals.

18. Turn Your Back on Temptation
The closer we’re situated to food that’s in our line of vision, the more we’ll actually consume. A simple fix? Face away from the dessert spread to listen to cues from your gut rather than your eyes.

19. Cave in to Cravings
Finally, a suggestion we can all get behind. It’s smart to acknowledge cravings instead of pushing them away completely (which may lead to bingeing later). Caving into a craving, as long as it’s in moderation, can curb the desire to go at it like a kid in a candy store (Try one of these healthier ways to satisfy a sweet tooth). Forbidding a specific food (or food group) during the holiday season may only make it more attractive. Still want more of that apple pie after a couple of bites? Try thinking of your favorite holiday activity, like opening presents, watching Christmas movies, or playing in the snow. Research shows that daydreaming about pleasant activities or scenes can reduce the intensity of food cravings.

20. Beware of Booze
Not only does alcohol add unnecessary calories to your diet (meaning we don't need alcoholic calories to survive), but getting boozy has another effect on us, too. Drinking too much in the presence of champagne, eggnog, wine, and beer can make us lose our inhibitions around food and start eating irresponsibly. Take it easy with the bubbly before you start saying things like, "Eh, what's one more cookie?"

21. Sip Before (and During) Meal Time
Pregaming a meal with a glass of water has been linked with more weight loss than cutting calories alone. Put the fork down and guzzle a little water between bites to give the brain time to register fullness.

22. Choose Tall and Thin
ve got a hankering for some seasonal eggnog, reach for a tall, thin glassre likely to down less in one sitting (which is especially helpful when drinking alcohol.) 

23. Gulp H2O
Drinking water helps people feel full, and as a result consume fewer calories. And rather than drink calorie- and sugar-laden sodas and juices (associated with increased body fat and blood pressure) treat yourself to a glass of wine with dinner and keep your allegiance to water for the rest of the day.

Tips for Moving and Mindset

24. Set Realistic Goals
Come New Year’s resolution season, it’s easy to set some pretty lofty and unrealistic goals about weight loss (drop three dress sizes by February!) Since impractical targets can slow down long-term weight-loss, it’s important to address those goals before making any health and fitness changes. Write down your goals — keep them specific and attainable — and post them somewhere highly visible, like the refrigerator door. If your goal is “stick to just two cookies at every holiday party” then seeing it periodically may help you commit. 

25. Stay Positive
Many of us demonize certain foods and even punish ourselves for indulgences. Instead, positive messages like “I can control my eating” or “I’m proud that I ate responsibly today” can reframe our relationship with food. Research shows positive expectations are associated with weight loss. Even if it feels a little silly, try telling yourself at least one positive affirmation per day.

26. De-stress
The holiday season is full of cheer, but it can also be pretty stressfultogethers and paying for all those gifts. Unfortunately, a lot of stress can trigger increased eating and cravings, especially for sugary carbohydrates. If family time (or being away from family during the holidays) has you feeling overwhelmed, try out one of these ways to reduce stress before double fisting cookies.  

27. Meditate
Emotional eating to make ourselves feel better (often when we’re sad or anxious) can interfere with weight loss goals. But meditation — using techniques like muscle relaxation and mindfulness — can help binge eaters become aware of how they turn to food to deal with emotions. This is especially important at parties where there’s a ton of food on display.

28. Sleep Smart
Though there’s likely no stopping the urge to wake up early on Christmas morning, getting enough sleep can help shave off some pounds, since sleep loss is linked to changes in appetite. Take a look at our guide to sleep positions to optimize those hours spent tucked under the sheets while the reindeer are hard at work. And try other solutions for extra Zzs, like turning off electronics in the bedroom and avoiding large meals late at night.

29. Let Go of Limitations
We’re not talking about unbuttoning your pants at the dinner table. Before hitting up holiday parties, remember that a good workout isn’t limited to a gym or the track. Use your bodyweight or build a home gym to work up a good sweat.

30. Get Functional
Functional exercise has been shown to increase strength and balance and reduce risk of injury, all while working multiple muscle groups at the same time. It also means you can squeeze in an effective mid-Christmas-movie-marathon workout in a shorter amount of time. All that movement promotes muscle gain, over time, which can increase metabolism.

31. Partner Up
Research suggests we perform better on aerobic tasks like running and cycling when exercising with a partner. re home for the holidays, call up a friend or family member for a gym date or a home workout with our favorite partner exercises, including medicine ball lunge-to-chest passes, and reach-and-touch planks.

32. Move It and Lose It
A simple phrase for losing weight is to move more and eat less. The secret here — like we said before — is that moving doesn’t just mean hitting the track or going to the gym. Make a conscious decision to get more steps into the day by taking the stairs or parking the car far away from the grocery store entrance. Before curling up around the fire, round up family members for a hike or snowshoe session.